Forecasts say Del. is ripe for hurricane
Potential for major problems complicated by dramatic growth
In a laboratory in Newark, Xiao-Hai Yan tracks the movement of a massive pool of warm water in the Pacific Ocean using satellite images.
So far this spring, there is no change, he said.
That's good news for people who have lived with monsoons, flooding and mudslides caused by El Niño events in the Pacific.
But here on the East Coast, those neutral images Yan, a professor of oceanography at the University of Delaware College of Marine Studies, sees thousands of miles away are spawning a slew of troubling forecasts for the 2006 hurricane season.
AccuWeather forecasters in State College, Pa., predicted last week six tropical cyclones will make landfall in the United States this year, with five of those storms likely to make landfall as hurricanes. Colorado State University researchers also are projecting an active hurricane season.
"There are few areas of the U.S. East Coast and Gulf of Mexico that will not be in the bull's eye at some point this season," said Ken Reeves, AccuWeather's director of forecast operations.
The potential for major problems is made worse by the dramatic growth in year-round population in Delaware's most vulnerable coastal communities.
Kelley Appleman, a marine policy graduate student at the University of Delaware College of Marine Studies, has been looking at growth closest to the coast.
In South Bethany, for instance, Census data from 1990 and 2000 showed the year-round population grew 239 percent, she said. In Bethany Beach, year-round population grew 183 percent, and in Fenwick Island, it was up 88 percent.
Many of these new residents were older -- the number of people between 50 and 59 increased 333 percent, Appleman said.
Sen. Tom Carper, meeting Friday with state, federal and local emergency planners in Rehoboth Beach, said he worries that people may be complacent and points to rising Atlantic Ocean water temperatures as a real cause for concern.
"The world is changing," he said. "Hurricanes could just as well come into Virginia, Maryland, Delaware or New Jersey" as other south coastal states. "We have to expect that. We have to be ready for that."
One of the most worrisome notes in the forecast comes from meteorologist Bernie Rayno.
"People may be unaware that portions of the Northeast coast have been severely damaged by major hurricanes in the past and that there is a likelihood that over the next five years, the Northeast could be hit by a major hurricane. This could be the year."
Among the factors that influenced this prediction, Reeves said, are the weak or neutral La Niña in the Pacific Ocean and warmer than normal Atlantic Ocean water temperatures.
"Water temperatures play such a huge role," Reeves said. " And we know that in an El Niño year, it really puts the kibosh on Atlantic hurricanes."
This year, there's no El Niño to help offset the power of Atlantic hurricanes.
Reeves said forecasters also look at patterns in the weather over time and typically it seems that when the Gulf states have an especially active hurricane season one year, the following year, the strong storms threaten the Atlantic Coast.
"You look at that and say, "Wow! Man, if that is really correct ... all evidence is pointing" to an East Coast strike, he said.
Another tool is to look at years where there are similar weather patterns. For Reeves, the year with similar weather patterns to 2006 is 1954 -- a year three named storms affected the mid-Atlantic. The worst of these, at least for Delawareans, was Hurricane Hazel.
Georgetown resident John M. Perry remembers his amazement at the damage Hurricane Hazel visited on Sussex County and his grandfather's Cool Spring farm on Sussex 292 in 1954.
"My grandfather was a farmer, and at the end of that storm he was a state employee," Perry said of his grandfather, also named John. "It completely took him out of the farming business. His chicken houses were flattened and livestock killed.
"I was living in Philadelphia at the time and went down with my father to see what we could do after the storm, and it was just amazing, through the eyes of an 8-year-old. He lost all his outbuildings -- he raised chickens and hogs -- some of his outbuildings collapsed on his farm equipment. A huge tree came down and just barely missed his house. It was so big that four or five people couldn't grab hands around it."
Despite Hazel's destruction throughout Delaware -- including Dover and Wilmington -- the center of the storm passed well to the west of the state -- an astonishing thing for people who lived through it.
In fact, said Kelvin Ramsey, a geologist with the Delaware Geological Survey, "no hurricane has made landfall in Delaware."
Oftentimes, people look to coastal areas as taking the brunt of hurricanes, but Delawareans also should be very concerned with storms that travel to our west, he said.
One reason Hazel was so destructive was because Delaware lay in the right, front quadrant -- the area where the winds are strongest, he said,
"We just don't have any real record of severe hurricanes right up the beach," he said.
So much of our hurricane activity depends on where the storms originate.
Typically, Ramsey said, storms on the Gulf Coast don't cause us much trouble. Although Hurricanes Agnes and Camille were exceptions because they brought with them rain and flooding. Storms that follow the warm waters of the Gulf Stream usually pass right by our shoreline.
"They tend to be very rapidly moving storms," he said.
But storms that form from Cuba north to the Bahamas can be a problem for us, he said.
Other weather systems, like highs and lows, often determine where those storms go.
An unnamed hurricane in 1878, caused "a tidal wave" and extensive flooding in the Delaware River and Bay, as the storm traveled along a low pressure valley, Ramsey said.
For Delaware, the riskiest time is usually in September and October when the ocean temperature is its warmest and storms are more likely to come together in the Bahamas, Ramsey said.
He worries that few people in the state have a clear idea of just what a hurricane can do.
"There's hardly any local experience," he said. "No one knows what to expect."
Preparing for a big storm
Since Hazel, there has been significant population and housing growth throughout the state. Delaware's population in 1950 was 318,085 people. Of those, 61,336 lived in Sussex County. Census estimates for 2004 place the state population at 830,364. The population in Sussex County was estimated at 172,216.
Most Delaware residents haven't seen sustained winds of 60 to 70 miles per hour.
"I think it's going to be a real eye-opener for a lot of people," said Wendy L. Carey, coastal process specialist with the University of Delaware Sea Grant College Program.
Carey offers seminars to coastal residents to help them prepare for severe coastal storms. With so much untested construction, "it's difficult to say how things are really going to hold up. ... In a state as small as Delaware, the wind impacts can occur anywhere."
Along Slaughter Beach, Kay Oesterling said that she and her husband feel safe living a few feet off Delaware Bay, even with forecasts calling for a slightly higher risk of a major storm.
"We do follow the weather, especially when we get further into the summer," said Oesterling, a Hershey, Pa., native who started spending summers along the beach east of Milford in 1984 and became a full-time resident 10 years later.
"We've never had any damage," Oesterling said as she clipped wet laundry to a clothesline. "We're on one of the highest parts of the beach, and that might be the reason."
Retired postal worker Clyde Wilkins knows the risk his family faces living along Slaughter Beach without flood insurance.
Wilkins, a part- or full-time resident of the community for 50 years, said that flood insurance prices had surged in recent years to about $1,400 a year.
"We haven't ever had to evacuate and we've never had any damage," Wilkins said, "and the insurance is too high now."
John A. Hughes, secretary of Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said the risk of an intense hurricane strike in Delaware remains low.
"After Katrina, I think everybody winced when they saw what happened in New Orleans," Hughes said.
"The fact of the matter is, looking at it from a fairly dispassionate standpoint, we still have pretty clear evidence that we don't have a lot of exposure."
Cooler mid-Atlantic waters deprive big storms of the kind of energy needed to maintain Gulf Coast-scale winds. Hughes cautioned that Delaware has gotten "knocked about" by tropical storms and hurricanes passing nearby.
State evacuation plans are designed to move residents away from hazard areas quickly, Hughes said, and severe storm conditions and floodwaters typically recede fast.
"We need to make realistic preparations," Hughes said. "We're not preparing for Katrina, but we don't need Katrina to get into a world of trouble around here."
Evacuating the coast
Because the state hasn't had a direct hurricane strike, it's highly vulnerable. Like Carey, Hughes worries that buildings haven't been tested by hurricane-force winds.
"We've got a lot of chicken houses out there that haven't experienced a whole lot of 135 mph winds," he said.
Sussex County emergency operations Director Joe Thomas said Delaware started tuning up its weather emergency plans long before Gulf Coast towns were flattened.
"We feel that we've got a fairly good handle on evacuation, if we have to do that," Thomas said. "If we're looking at a mandatory evacuation of the entire coast, we would be looking, in the peak of summer, at 24 to 36 hours before the start of what we call tropical storm-force winds, above 45 mph."
Evacuation routes generally match those that serve resort traffic, Thomas said, and have little extra capacity. Although some communities speed up evacuation rates by using all highway lanes for outbound travel, Sussex planners found such "reverse-laning" schemes too difficult to control locally.
"What that means is, we'd have to ask people to leave well ahead of time," Thomas said.
Other problems hamper resort-area evacuations, Thomas added.
"My counterpart in Ocean City, Md., used to say that his biggest challenge was, when people come to the coastal areas for vacation, they come to disconnect from everything -- radio, television -- and the biggest challenge is to make sure they stay informed."
Local officials also are pondering local readiness for sheltering evacuees for more than the three to five days typically used in hurricane planning. Katrina, Thomas said, proved that big storms can wipe out any hope of a quick return for huge numbers of people.
"You hope you get people out before the storm," Thomas said. "One concern would be, once the storm passes, how are you going to get back into the area, if it affects the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in any way. Then you have only one point of access to the peninsula -- that's coming across I-95 and down Route 1."
The potential for damage
Delaware Emergency Management Director Jamie Turner said that many Delaware residents focus on risks along the Atlantic and Delaware Bay beaches, Turner said. But the focus needs to be wider.
"The key to our success is notifying and motivating people to leave the impacted areas where ever they may be," Turner said.
A storm like Hurricane Isabel, which swept across Virginia in 2003, instead could have swung slightly east, "come up the Chesapeake Bay and we could have really gotten the bejeezus walloped out of us."
If an intense storm moved up the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware and the Eastern Shore would be raked by the hurricane's northeast quarter, usually the most fierce part of the spiral and an area more likely to spawn tornados.
For state climatologist David Legates, the worst-case scenario goes something like this: It's the last weekend in September and thousands of NASCAR fans have filled central Delaware for the stock car race. A hurricane is hovering off the coast to our south. It's 11:30 p.m. and everyone goes to bed thinking tomorrow will be just another day.
But the storm turns, gains strength and before anyone can evacuate, collides with the coast. Such a storm doesn't have to make landfall in Delaware.
"Just because we don't take direct hits," he said, "doesn't mean we're out of the woods," he said.
Legates said for coastal residents, winter nor'easters can still be the biggest risk. The area from Hatteras, N.C., to New Jersey hasn't been hit by a hurricane in 55 years, he said.
Part of that could simply be the location of the coastline. Hatteras sticks out, as do Long Island, N.Y., and Cape Cod, Mass., he said.
John Schmidtlein, a Bethany Beach resident, recently moved landward after spending 35 years as a part-time resident in a Hollywood Street house two blocks from the ocean.
"One time in the '80s or early '90s, water did get up to the front steps, but it didn't get on the front porch," Schmidtlein said. "I bought that place in 1970 and I was told by old-timers that the big storm of 1962 did come up inside the cottage and turned over the refrigerator and damaged some other appliances."
"I'm told that I'm in a kinder flood zone here, he said.
Off Long Neck Road at White House Beach, longtime resident and missionary Janet Rhoads said she has faith that her home will remain safe.
"We've had this place for about 48 years, and we've never had water in the house yet," Rhoads said. "It's come up close, but it's never come in. We can 't believe it. We're really blessed."